Etosha National Park

Outstanding among them is Etosha National Park, a formidably arid but beautiful place (“Etosha” means land of dry white water referring to the often-dry lakebed) which may have more spectacular animals to be seen on an intimate basis than any place else on earth.

This is because perennial springs here satisfy their need for water no matter what the weather (it is sunny and rainless 300 days a year) and because this 8,600-square-mile (22,270-km2) national park, larger than the state of Massachusetts, is so remote and protected animals live in a world that belongs almost totally to them.

Thirsty giraffes spread their long legs so their even longer necks—which require a special circulatory system to pump blood up to the brain—can reach down to the water, watchful for predatory lions but little else. Zebras snort and mill about in such numbers that their stripes, each in a different pattern, can create a bewildering (but not to them) kaleidoscopic effect.

There are 114 species of mammals here, 392 kinds of birds—and sometimes large numbers of all these simultaneously in one place. There are curly-horned kudus, prehistoric armored pangolins, 7,000 zebras, 20,000 exuberant springboks (which can go months without drinking) “pronking” in stiff-legged upward leaps, and some 1,500 or so elephants, some solo, others in small bachelor groups, still others in matriarchal herds ranging in age from 50 years to a few hours.

Massive irritable buffalo share nutritious grasses with elands, which at a weight of one ton (900+ kg) are largest antelope in the world, and rare diminutive Damara dik-diks which can tip the scales at less than 10 pounds (5 kg).

Others, seldom seen elsewhere but not uncommon here, are graceful black-faced impalas which can leap 38 feet (12 m) horizontally and 12 feet (3.5 m) high; clown-masked roan antelopes; Hartmann’s mountain zebras; and two-ton black rhinoceros—this their last remaining stronghold. Handsome gemsbok, or oryx, frugal water-drinkers, come in great migratory groups.

It is a Namibian version of Tanzania’s Serengeti Plain but is relatively undiscovered by outside visitors, in a country where animals greatly outnumber (and are largely undisturbed by) humans.

Focus of this rich reserve is the Etosha Pan, which is more often dry than wet—probably filled historically by the Kunene River, a source cut off by tectonic disturbances 12 million years ago.

Now only in uncommon years of bountiful rainfall does this 2,368-square-mile (6,133-km2) lake bed fill and then it is with highly mineralized water. But usually for a short time each year it fills enough to attract up to a million greater and lesser flamingos which present a marvelous moving mosaic of pink and white as they filter-feed over 180 tons of algae and diatoms daily. There may also be huge flocks of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of chestnut-banded plovers and white pelicans with nine-foot (3-m) wingspreads fanning out to other water holes to drink as well.

Most of the time, however, the enormous populations of wildlife, resident as well as migratory, depend for potable water on the 40 or so springs and water holes around its edge and throughout the park. These spread along 500 miles (800 km) of graveled park roads where the animals are easily visible, sometimes in huge numbers.

Elephants which drink up to 53 gallons (200 liters) of water every day fill up here and then wallow and cover themselves with mud which dries to a white layer of sun protection. Babies nap in the shadows cast by their ghostly-looking mothers. Male sandgrouse fluff up uniquely adapted breast feathers, filling the interstices with moisture to take back to thirsty nestlings up to 36 miles (60 km) away.

Large numbers of predators are attracted not only by water but by the large number of herbivores, their prey species. Leopards are elusive but the park population is estimated at over 100. They often kill a victim and then drag it up a tree to keep it from hyenas. A leopard’s meal might usually be an antelope but they have been known to transport a young giraffe weighing up to 41 pounds (19 kg).

There are cheetahs, jackals, caracals, and lions, which are particularly large and numerous in Etosha—up to 500, largest in proportion to prey in Africa, with black-maned males that can weigh almost 500 pounds (225 kg). Among the smaller predators are African wildcats, jackals, honey badgers, and aardwolves.

Fischer’s Pan, often first to hold water and last to dry up, is a good place to find such birds as great crested grebes, Hottentot teals, storks, and sometimes hundreds of curlew sandpipers, little stints, and ruffs. A pair of giant eagle-owls are often at Klein Namutoni.

Orange and black masked weavers chatter in great nesting congregations in wooded belts of leadwood and acacia trees, often joined by pygmy falcons which take up residence in weaver colonies and feed on the residents. Brilliant lilac-breasted rollers scout the savannahs for insects and lizards.

In central and western Etosha, dominated by mopane woodland, are white helmet-shrikes, violet wood hoopoes, gray-backed bleating warblers, and familiar chats, also monotonous larks, white-quilled korhaans, and pale chanting goshawks.

Ostriches, at six feet (2 m) tall the world’s largest (though flightless) bird, come to water or graze in wooded grasslands, accelerating to 37 miles an hour (60 kph) and lashing out dangerously with powerful clawed legs if necessary. Males can sound curiously like roaring lions when they “boom.”

On searingly hot days, zebras face away from the sun so their stripes, white ones wider in back, will absorb less heat (they turn their sides sunward to absorb heat on cool mornings).

After the rains start, human visitors are fewer; but those who do come see impalas and wildebeest dropping their young, predators following them, and large numbers of birds.

Life can be perilous. The Etosha Pan can dry up before flamingos and pelicans finish raising their young, and adults must leave in order to survive themselves. One year 20,000 parched chicks were captured here and released at still-watered Fischer’s Pan. Another year 30,000 young birds, just able to walk, marched 19 miles (30 km) to the nearest water at Poacher’s Point, then set out again for Ekuma River Delta, their parents feeding them en route, sometimes making a daily round trip of 60 miles (100 km) until most of the chicks reached safety a month later.

One can see all this by going from water hole to water hole—but it is at least as interesting and often more rewarding to take a lunch and watch the constant parade at one place. Some sites near the camps are floodlit and watchable at all hours.

A curious area is the Haunted Forest not far from Okaukuezo in the southern section, filled with “phantom trees” which give the peculiar appearance of having been planted upside down, their roots pointing skyward.

Best time to visit is in April–October dry season and southern hemisphere winter.

Hartebeest are among the swiftest antelopes, capable of 48 miles an hour (80 kph) when fleeing a predator, and, with greater endurance, able to outdistance most of them. They can make do on the toughest grasses, and go without water except when unable to get melons or tubers.

Hartebeest are among the swiftest antelopes, capable of 48 miles an hour (80 kph) when fleeing a predator, and, with greater endurance, able to outdistance most of them. They can make do on the toughest grasses, and go without water except when unable to get melons or tubers.

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